Generation after generation, engineers have maintained the barricade, a shield that protects civilization against Turbulence, this strange force that destroys both minds and machines. As Turbulence grows ever more intense and the barricade begins to fail, can Ritter live up to the demands of his father, an engineer the equal of any hero in the Five Great Classical Novels, as they struggle to prevent this civilization from falling like every civilization has before it?
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About the Author
John Chu designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. He is an alumnus of the Viable Paradise and Clarion workshops. His stories have been published in Boston Review, Bloody Fabulous, and Asimov's Science Fiction.
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A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade
By John Chu, Julie Dillon
MacmillanCopyright © 2014 John Chu
All rights reserved.
The barricade ran the length of the frontier. It was transparent and still when calm, but the section before Ritter shimmered. Once coiled as though in tangled skeins, Turbulence now splattered like paint, coating this section of the barricade with patternless splotches of colored light. Generation after generation, engineers had maintained and overhauled the shield that protected civilization against this strange force that destroyed both minds and machines. Ritter's first posting was supposed to be more maintenance and less overhaul. Unfortunately, the barricade, rather than stilling the Turbulence, twisted and writhed as threads of Turbulence clogged its pistons. Smoke bloomed as the barricade's flawed machinery destroyed itself.
Ritter's partner hung just over the smoke, threads of Turbulence snaking through his dead body. He'd decided to show Ritter, the new academy graduate, how engineers really worked. But the barricade was malfunctioning, not just broken down. It would need a new design to account for an attack mode that Turbulence had never before exhibited, not merely its stripped gears replaced, but the seasoned engineer had refused to listen. The blaze of Turbulence that leaked through hadn't taken more than few seconds to destroy his mind.
Ritter shot a distress flare. It carved a thick spiral in the air as it soared. Help would arrive sooner or later.
A faint whine echoed in his head. A cart was trundling toward him from the other side of the barricade. He sensed it as clearly as if it were right in front of him. Its motor was clanging itself to pieces, its throttle was stuck open, and its steering had seized. In minutes, the cart would plunge straight into Turbulence and its driver could do little about it.
Ritter threw himself onto the barricade. His hands clutched a cracked, invisible girder. It tossed him back and forth like a banner in a storm. He imagined a tarp, the equations for which Father had drilled into him when he was six. It unfurled over this section of the barricade, its elegant curves guiding Turbulence toward adjoining sections. Vast multicolored plumes parted, rushing along the tarp to areas of the frontier where Ritter hoped the barricade was still in working order.
Ritter's section calmed down. His partner, no longer an engineer, fell through the barricade. The dead body splayed on the ground like a pile of broken struts.
In Ritter's mind, the barricade felt like a palimpsest. His sense of the archivist who drove the cart and the feral library that trailed it bled through in all the wrong places. Ritter recognized the archivist. When Ritter was a child, Deck's job was to shepherd a library from camp to camp along the barricade. Deck shared Father's tent whenever his duties took him to Camp Terminus.
For Ritter, telepathy was simultaneously a gift and a curse. The gift was that Ritter could know that Deck had aimed the now-uncontrollable cart at Ritter, confident that Ritter would save him somehow. The curse of telepathy was that Ritter couldn't tell what lay just over his own head. Echoes of shelves on the approaching library's giant book walls seemed like the barricade's girders. A myriad of small shelves of Deck's mind revolved around each other in curves that soared through dozens of dimensions. They seemed to entwine the machine that surrounded Ritter like the nest of tubing that connected the pistons to the compressors. He'd never met another engineer who had to put up with the chaos of minds interfering with the sense of machines in their heads.
Creating a machine was like working out subtle mathematical analyses while hoisting unbalanced boulders into their proper places. Father could imagine vast, complicated designs outright. Everyone else imagined parts into reality and then hefted into place. Crenels deepened on gears Ritter imagined into tiny battlements. Cams smoothed into pleasing ovoids. He mated them to motors and actuators that he belted and wrestled into the design. Ritter's body ached from the strain and sweat stung his eyes.
The new design came together methodically. Teasing out what were parts of the barricade and what were phantoms of the library and archivist slowed him down. He jumped every time the tarp buckled under the strain of roiling Turbulence. Father would have been disappointed with how long it was taking him, but Father now led Camp Terminus, a day's trip away.
The cart and the library galloping to keep pace looked like toys hurtling toward a tangled swarm of glowing, variegated threads as intangible as the barricade meant to stop them. Ritter dismissed the tarp and braced against a girder. The barricade swayed and rippled, alternately squat and lithe as it untangled then dissolved threads lashing at it.
The storm of Turbulence dimmed, its snarled mass thinned down to scattered individual threads. Turbulence swarmed around the library and cart. The library reared, its translucent tusks shoving threads aside. The library and cart passed through the barricade as though it weren't there. For non-engineers, it wasn't.
Now, Ritter had to stop the runaway cart. He jumped off the barricade and slammed onto the cart's hood. Deck gave Ritter an amused gaze through the library tusk visor of his helmet, then waved. Very little fazed Deck.
Ritter's hand found the crack between the hood and the body of the cart. An imagined knife jammed into a lever. The hood swung up, slamming Ritter against the windshield. Ritter reached around and pulled free a piece of tubing. The motor died and Ritter felt Deck engage the brakes.
"Not quite, Ritter." The sharp, stentorian voice came from behind, not from the cart.
That voice had etched itself too deeply into Ritter for him to mistake it. However, his father was several orders of magnitude too important to respond to a new graduate's distress flare.
"Father?" Ritter stumbled off the cart then snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."
Meeting Father was like crashing into the sandstone cliff that had erupted into existence while you weren't looking. Father even looked the part. Thick shoulders and a general solidity settled on all engineers, but more so on Father. Even now that they saw eye-to-eye, Father still seemed to loom over him.
"This is how you should have redesigned it." Father marched to the barricade.
He coiled then exploded, tumbling from one girder to another. The tall, hulking figure climbed up the barricade as easily as he'd walked to it. He exchanged the end point of one hose with that of another. The wall's jitter evolved into a slight sway. Turbulence actually seemed slightly more agitated.
"Do you understand why this is, on the whole, a better solution?" Father leapt off the barricade then marched back. His gaze could have cut diamonds.
"No, sir." If Ritter had said yes, Father would have asked him to explain. He'd learned as a child never to lie to Father.
Father frowned. "But you at least see how it is in some ways a worse solution."
"Worse?" Ritter's brow furrowed. The shelves of Father's mind, as always, revolved around each other in complex curves that traversed hundreds of dimensions. Ritter had never seen a more intelligent mind.
"Ritter, all engineering is a matter of trade-offs." Father closed his eyes, as if to master himself, then opened them again. "Have they taught you nothing at the academy?"
This was a question Ritter was certain he could work out the answer to. If worse came to worst, he had a fifty-fifty chance.
"Rhetorical question, Ritter." Father held up his hand. "Prepare a full analysis of the new Turbulence attack mode exhibited here and of the design deployed. I expect it on my desk tomorrow. You are now working on the overhaul of the barricade under my direct command. Understood?"
"But what about ..." Ritter ran out of words and resorted to pointing at the section of barricade he was sworn to watch.
Father rolled his eyes. "I've already ordered the signalers on either side to split your territory. If they need help, they know to ask."
"On my desk. Tomorrow at dawn." Father's gaze shifted past Ritter to the cart, then back. For a moment, a smile might have crinkled his face. "Fix Deck's cart. Camp Terminus is on his way back to civilization."
Father hefted the dead body of Ritter's partner across his shoulders, then literally flew away. A transparent flying machine had surrounded him the instant before he leapt into the air.
Ritter stared, jaw agape, at the prone figure growing smaller in the distance. He gave in to the urge to understand how the flying machine worked, letting it fill his mind for as long as he could still sense it.
Sandstone cliffs stood in the distance, clearly visible through the barricade. The occasional tent dotted the field of rock and sparse brush that lay on either side of the road to Camp Terminus. Engineers monitoring the barricade all stared at the library galloping behind the cart as it passed them. Libraries were black, massive beasts with thick legs and transparent tusks. They didn't normally gallop and, frankly, it never looked possible.
The cart rattled as if it were shaking itself apart. The doors and the hood clattered against their fittings and latches. Deck's long legs kept bumping against the steering column. The power train, though, was silent. Ritter had replaced it entirely with one he'd built out of imagined parts. After the cart's trip through Turbulence, the original power train would have disintegrated long before they reached Camp Terminus.
Ritter wished he'd had time to refit the body too, but one was never late for an appointment with Father. Between the racket and the library bombarding his mind with invitations to climb its book walls, the analysis Father wanted was going slowly. Dense symbols covered only scant pages of the thick pad on his lap.
Deck was doing an admirable job of not commenting on Ritter's repairs. Veteran engineers, not fresh graduates, had the capacity to rebuild an entire section of the barricade. That Ritter could also reconstruct most of a cart afterward was odder still. Father had been training him since before he could walk. Despite an additional course load in librarianship, studying at the academy seemed like a vacation compared to Father. Explaining this never convinced anyone that he was normal, not that Deck needed any convincing one way or the other.
The archivist had long ago rifled through Ritter's mind as if he were some library that needed to be cataloged. All librarians were at least slightly telepathic. Otherwise, they couldn't enter a library or know which book to retrieve when the best description a patron could muster was "a detective novel about mushrooms whose title is a type of bird." The ability that interfered with Ritter's sense of machines was a prerequisite for them. Some archivists were considerably more than slightly telepathic.
Vast walls crammed with books occluded the pad of paper on Ritter's lap. Deck had already started to catalog the beast and Ritter could sense the shelves and shelves devoted to chaotic dynamics. Just because Turbulence had wiped out the civilization that had created this archive didn't mean they hadn't had good ideas. A citation Father would actually have to look up was irresistible.
"Junior, just go." Deck took Ritter's pad of paper away from him. "You've thought through your analysis so many times, I practically have it memorized."
Inside the library, Ritter stood on a book wall as broad and rugged as a cliff face. His fingers pinched one shelf while his feet pressed against the edge of another. Other walls lay orthogonal to it along nine different axes so that, in total, they formed a nine-dimensional lattice.
Ritter climbed the wall, his hands and feet finding purchase in the cracks between books and the edges of shelving. Unlike engineering, his upper body served mostly as ballast here, extra weight for his legs to push up the wall. He leapt from wall to wall, searching for shelves devoted to chaotic dynamics.
At the academy, he'd liked the librarianship classes best because he actually got to take them. His engineering professors all told him to show up to class only for the exams, then assigned him independent study. He needed something to fill up his time. The student librarians were more fun to be around anyway. They didn't refer to Father with an awed expression and a reverent tone.
Ritter had done well in his studies. He found his book quickly enough and landed back in the passenger seat of the cart with a soft whoosh, book in hand.
"Junior." Deck handed Ritter his pad of paper back. "Has anyone ever told you that —"
"That I'd deal with Father better if I didn't behave like a field mouse cowering beneath the great gray owl flying overhead, hoping not to be eaten?"
Deck had undoubtedly felt Ritter's panic during Father's grilling. Ritter certainly felt Deck's testiness now.
"That wasn't how I was going to put it." Deck took a deep breath. "You're hardly a field mouse, but the academy might have been easier to take if you didn't also look exactly like him."
As Ritter had grown taller and broader, so had Father's shadow. In his last years at the academy, professors hurried to stand whenever Ritter went to office hours, only to quickly sit down again when Ritter made it clear that he was the son, not the father.
"The man whose designs have pushed the barricade hundreds of miles into the frontier gets to work with whomever he wants, I guess." Ritter shrugged. "I'll be the only person from my graduating class at Camp Terminus."
"You say that as if it were a bad thing, Junior." Deck pulled off the road then stopped the cart. "If you're so desperate to be out from under your father's shadow, why aren't you a librarian? Few enough are telepathic that everyone who is gets an offer from somewhere."
"I'm an engineer." Ritter started writing the next section of his analysis. "A signaler in the middle of nowhere was the farthest away I could get."
Deck unfolded himself from the cart. He was as tall as Father seemed. As a child, Ritter had thought they were the same height until he'd seen them hand-in-hand and realized Deck was a head taller. Deck squatted a few times to stretch his legs, then walked around the cart to Ritter.
"I have some pull with the archivists." Deck thumbed through Ritter's library book. "You think nothing of reading chaotic dynamics written in a dead language. It wouldn't even be a favor to have you work for us. We're still finding the occasional feral library. They need to be cataloged and translated. We're always creating and updating archives for when the barricade inevitably fails —"
"Not on my watch." The words had erupted from Ritter before he'd realized.
"Spoken like your father." Deck glared at him. "Nevertheless, no civilization has ever held off Turbulence indefinitely. Your training as an engineer won't go to waste as an archivist."
Ritter could see the disappointment on Father's face now. Then again, at Camp Terminus, hundreds of minds would interfere with his. Father might be disappointed anyway.
"Deck, how alike are minds and libraries? You repair minds the way you repair shelves and restore books, right?"
"Well, people's minds aren't libraries, of course. You've sensed that yourself. Otherwise, we'd just restructure our shelves, fill ourselves with books and to hell with the academy." Deck set the library book on Ritter's lap. "Minds are far more complicated, but a few archivists can — No, Junior."
"But you can do it. Destroy the parts of my mind that read everyone around me."
Deck stared at Ritter for a minute. A frown spread across his face.
"It's a terrible idea. The shelves of a mind are more interconnected than those in any library. Much of your time at the academy would become an impenetrable blur. I don't know who you'd be —"
"But they're not so interconnected yet that you can't disentangle and destroy them but leave the rest of me intact."
"Junior." Deck glared down, taking full advantage of his height. "That you can pull that out of my mind is a reason not to do this."
Deck strode back around, jumped into the driver's seat, then pulled the cart back onto the road. "Take some time to think about my offer. Given how much of this cart you've imagined, I'll be visiting your father for a while."
The mechanics at Camp Terminus would replace what Ritter had imagined with physical parts so that he could spend his capacity on the barricade. They'd compare his work to Father's and then, like the professors at the academy, find it wanting. He knew it'd be good to do something where he couldn't be compared to Father. Actually meeting Father's expectations, though, seemed so much better. He could do that if, like any other engineer, the only mind he sensed was his own.
As usual, engineers approached Ritter with open arms and big smiles as he entered the canteen, only to mutter awkward greetings when they realized he was, not the father, but the son. Conversation had now resumed its usual simmer. Everyone laughed at their own jokes a little too hard and enjoyed each other's company a little too desperately. One way or another, Camp Terminus broke engineers.
Excerpted from A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade by John Chu, Julie Dillon. Copyright © 2014 John Chu. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade,